“Game of Thrones” last week supplanted “The Sopranos” as the most-watched show in HBO history, with an average gross audience of 18.4 million people this season, surpassing the 18.2 million who watched the hit mob drama in 2002.
A New Jersey mob drama and a sprawling fantasy series set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros might not seem to have much in common, but as the Season 4 finale of “Game” approaches Sunday, here are 10 things they’ve helped teach us:
1. Sexy isn’t a height or a weight or a haircut. There are plenty of conventional beauties – female and male – in “Game of Thrones,” but only one actor’s been as essential to the show as James Gandolfini was to “The Sopranos,” and that’s another Jersey guy, Peter Dinklage, who’s stolen every scene he’s been in – and plenty of hearts along the way – as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of one of Westeros’ ruling families.
2. Even hit shows need time to build. Like “The Sopranos,” which saw its largest viewership in its fourth and fifth seasons, “Thrones” is up from Season 3, when HBO reports it averaged 14.4 million viewers. Credit DVDs and services like HBO Go for letting people catch up on a show that’s hard to start in the middle.
3. Even hit-producing networks need time to build their next hits. Before “The Sopranos” ended seven years ago, HBO was already thinking about a tomorrow without the show that helped establish it as a destination for extraordinary original programming. Yet “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom,” “Treme,” and the vampire hit “True Blood” have all failed to capture the public in the way a mob boss with mother issues once did. Who knew it would take dragons to bring viewers roaring back?
4. Violence still sells. Maybe it’s coincidence, but the announcement that “Game of Thrones” had passed “The Sopranos” came on the heels of an episode in which a particularly nasty fight ended with the explosion of one of the participant’s heads.
5. Sex also still sells. “Thrones” inspired a blogger named Myles McNutt to coin the term “sexposition.” It describes those scenes in which nudity appears to have been used to keep viewers from nodding off while important information was conveyed.
6. Women matter. Yes, even when they’re not naked. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and her two extraordinary daughters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), are just a few of the characters who’ve proved that people will pay premium-cable prices to watch compelling, imperfect people of either sex.
7. Genres don’t matter. The only fantasy is in thinking that a story inspired by the War of the Roses is only for Comic-Con fanboys.
8. Viewers like to be surprised. Even when they say they don’t. Remember all those people who said they’d never watch again after something they didn’t like occurred in the first seasons of both shows? Either they got over it or they were replaced (and then some) by more intrepid fans.
9. You never know who’s going to watch. Or even read. Great stories find their audiences. I never expected to love a mob drama. Yesterday, I encountered a man at my gym who was reading one of the George R.R. Martin books on which “Game of Thrones” is based. He’s a few decades older than most people I knew who were reading the books before the show began, but he loves them.
10. Title sequences count. Broadcast TV has cut back on the opening titles and theme songs that formed the sound tracks of many of our childhoods, but both “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” have used theirs so effectively that I have only to hear a few bars of either to be transported into a very different world.